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Revolutions occur when democracy runs out of ideas

We spend most of our waking hours being held to account between the guardrails of risk-informed and responsible decision making. Undoubtedly, we often climb over the guardrails and make ill-informed, irresponsible and irrational decisions, but that is human agency. It is also true that we would not innovate, create or discover if we could not explore the other side of our safety guardrails.

Today’s perception of responsible decision making is different to that our grandparents held. Our grandchildren will look back at our “risk-informed” decisions with the advantage of hindsight and question why our risk management frameworks were so short-term-focused. However, we need to recognise that our guardrails are established by current political, economic and societal framing.

What are we optimising for?

I often ask the question, “what are we optimising for?” The reason I ask this question is to draw out different viewpoints in a leadership team. The viewpoints that drive individual optimisation is framed by their experience, ability to understand time-frames and incentives.

Peak Paradox is a non-confrontational framework to explore our different perceptions of what we are optimising for. We need different and diverse views to ensure that our guardrails don’t become so narrow they look like rail tracks, and we repeat the same mistakes because that is what the process determines. Equally, we must agree together boundaries of divergence which means we can optimise as a team for something that we believe in and has a shared purpose of us and our stakeholders. Finding this dynamic area of alignment is made easier with the Peak Paradox framework.

However, our model of risk-informed responsible decision making is based on the idea that the majority decides, essentially democracy. If the “majority” is a supermajority, we need 76%; for a simple majority, we need 51%, and for minority protections less than 10%. What we get depends on how someone has previously set up the checks, balances, and control system. And then there is the idea of monarchy or the rich and powerful making the decisions for everyone else, the 0.001%.

However, our guardrails for democratic decision making breaks down when there is a need for choices, decisions, judgement that has to be made that people do not like. How do we enable better decisions when hard decisions mean you will lose the support of the majority?

We do not all agree with vaccines (even before covid), eating meat, climate change, our government or authority. Vaccines in the current global pandemic period are one such tension of divergence. We see this every day in the news feeds; there is an equal and opposite view for every side. Humanity at large lives at Peak Paradox, but we don’t equally value everyone views. Why do we struggle with the idea that individual liberty of choice can be taken away in the interests of everyone?

Climate change is another. Should the government act in the longer term and protect the future or act in the short term persevering liberty and ensure re-election? Protestors with a cause may fight authority and are portrayed as mavericks and disruptors, but history remembers many as pioneers, martyrs and great leaders. Those who protested in the 1960 and 1970s against nuclear energy may look back today and think that they should have been fighting fossil fuels. Such pioneers are optimising for something outside of the normal guardrails. Whilst they appear to be living outside of the accepted guardrails, they can see they should be adopted.

Our guardrails work well when we can agree on the consequences of risk-informed and responsible decision making; however, in an age when information is untrusted and who is responsible is questioned, we find that we all have different guardrails. Living at Peak Paradox means we have to accept we will never agree on what is a responsible decision and we are likely to see that our iteration of democracy that maintains power and control is going to end in a revolution if we could only agree on what to optimise for.

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